|photo by Beyond My Ken|
Nicholas Cruger spent 144 pounds in 1786 for a parcel of Watts’s farm. Born in 1743, by 1770 Cruger had become the largest merchant in New York City. Dealing primarily in the West Indian trade, he spent much of his time in St. Croix where, years before the Revolution, a young Alexander Hamilton had worked for him. Around four years after he bought the former Watts property, a sturdy post-and-beam, clapboard country house appeared with a prominent Dutch-style hipped roof.
Cruger died in St. Croix on March 11, 1800. Already the city was inching northward toward his summer estate. In 1811 the Commissioners’ Plan laid out the street grid of midtown Manhattan. The plan dissected Rose Hill with 29th Street edging up to the residence and Third Avenue running just behind. Within a few years they would become actual thoroughfares, with the house Nicholas Cruger built now sitting awkwardly with its side facing 29th Street.
By 1830 Joseph Haskett, a saddler, owned the property. And then during the Civil War the family of George McDonald lived here. George died in the house on October 22, 1868 at the age of 56. His funeral was held here the following Sunday afternoon.
As the city moved ever northward, eventually engulfing the wooden home, the character of the neighborhood changed. Five years after McDonald's death No. 203 was being operated as a rooming house. On February 9, 1873 an advertisement in The New York Herald offered "Handsomely furnished rooms to let--to gentlemen, without board."
Among the tenants in 1893 were William Sutton and his sister, Mary. It would appear that the families living in the 29th Street house were struggling, for a day or two after Christmas that year Sutton stole a blanket belonging to a truckman, Richard Barry.
It was Mary, however, who was accused of the crime. She was arrested on December 27 and held in jail over night. The following morning her brother surrendered. The Evening World ran the headline "Innocent Girl Arrested."
In 1905 at least four tenants were living here: a coach driver, Charles Barshfeld, truck driver Harry Jarvis, and Mary Decker, who was a bookbinder, and 68-year old Elizabeth Lamoureaux.
Years earlier, in France, Elizabeth had been a member of Sarah Bernhardt's company. When she came to America she acted with the Ravel troupe, and also played the role of Pocahontas. She retired from the state in 1885. When Elizabeth discovered in December 1905 that Sarah Bernhardt would be appearing at the Lyric Theatre, she was determined to obtain a ticket.
The elderly woman showed up at the Lyric Theatre at 10:00 on the cold night of December 6 carrying a camp stool. The New-York Tribune explained "She did not wish to ask Bernhardt for free seats, and fearing that she could not buy seats near the stage unless she was first at the box office, she came last night to the theatre, prepared to sit out the dull hours between 10 in the evening and 9 o'clock the next morning."
Lee Shubert opened the lobby so she could stay out of the cold. At midnight he sent a boy for sandwiches and coffee. (Apparently the thought of selling her a seat before the ticket booth opened did not occur to him.)
A mere five years later the house's population had doubled. Among the blue collar tenants were a janitor, an elevated railroad guard and an upholsterer. A junk shop took over the street level around 1912.
|In 1915 a tall staircase led to the rooming house. A ground level is the junk store.|
|The house as it appeared on July 23, 1934. photos from the collection of the New York Public Library|
The wooden structure sat incongruously among its brick-and-stone urban neighbors until 1979 when Patrick and Linda Lyons purchased it for $80,000. Intent on making the well-worn house a home again, they initiated a three-year renovation. Rather than restore the venerable old structure, they gutted it. Everything other than the timbered frame was dismantled and discarded – the clapboard siding, the interior walls, the original six-over-six paned windows.
The reproduction elements, however, are faithful to the original structure. The renovation resulted in a single family home in the upper portion with an apartment at street level.
The unexpected wooden farmhouse at No. 203 East 29th Street has changed hands a few times since its renovation. Because of the 1866 law prohibiting construction of frame structures in Manhattan, there are only a handful of wooden buildings to be found and stumbling upon this one is a delight.